Paging Dr. God: Jewish Views of Illness and Healing

By Marinell James

September 2, 2009


Someone you know is ill, and other people are offering to pray for them. You aren’t sure–do Jews do that? Are you allowed to pray in a synagogue for someone who isn’t Jewish to get better?

The Jewish custom of praying for people who are ill or injured is very old. In recent years, rabbis and other Jewish thinkers have worked to revive old traditions and restore Jewish ideas about health and healing to the mainstream of Jewish life.

Health = Wholeness

“The ancient Greek mind parsed body, mind and spirit out as separate, but Judaism never split them,” says Rabbi Eric Weiss, executive director of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco. “It’s always been an assumption that all three are part of an integral whole.”

This interrelatedness of body, mind and spirit derives from the broader Jewish concept of wholeness or shleimut. In this context, physical illness is understood to have psychological and spiritual effects. Similarly, spiritual suffering or emotional turmoil may manifest itself in physiological symptoms. Perhaps that’s why Jews traditionally wish a sick person a refuah shlema, “complete healing.”

Visting a sick person in the hospital“Refuah shlema says I’m concerned about all dimensions of your suffering,” says Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, rabbinic director of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York. “It says I’m advocating for the whole person.”

The expression Refuah shlema speaks to a distinction Judaism makes between “cure” and “healing,” notes Marjorie Sokoll, director of Jewish Healing Connections at Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Boston. The differentiation goes back to Biblical times.

“When Jacob struggled with the angel, he was left with a limp, but it says in the Torah that he was still shleim, whole,” says Sokoll. “That’s the difference between curing and healing – the focus of Jewish healing is that we can’t always expect a cure, but we can hope to be made whole.”

The Jewish View of Sickness

Judaism views illness as part of a natural order that God sets in motion but doesn’t control, says Weintraub. “Illness is really a mystery, and is understood as a part of life.”

The idea that illness is a form of divine retribution or a consequence of sin is not part of the Jewish mindset.

“Illness is not something we can always explain, certainly not in terms of an individual’s moral scoresheet,” says Weintraub. “We discourage in our tradition identifying someone’s suffering as being related to a misdeed.”

Instead, Judaism recognizes that illness and suffering can strike anyone.

“Our bodies wear out, we’re susceptible to illnesses, and who gets what is random,” says Rabbi Rafael Goldstein, an integrative life coach in Phoenix, Ariz., and founder of the Dynamics of Hope website. “We can try to come up with reasons, or we can recognize that bad things happen.”

This does not mean that Jews passively resign themselves to whatever illnesses the natural order (or “Fate” or “genetics” or “God’s will”) sends their way. On the contrary, Jewish law requires that we seek healing, says Weintraub. We’re expected to actively pursue treatment.

“We jokingly say chicken soup is penicillin, but we don’t have a Jewish equivalent of, say, Chinese medicine,” says Weiss. “We do have a rabbinic dictum that says you should get the best medical care wherever you can.”

Even though one of God’s titles in Jewish prayer is Rofeh, “Healer,” Jewish scholars recognized the need for human intervention. Maimonides, a 12th-century physician and expert on Jewish law, traced the requirement of physicians to heal to the laws in the Torah about restoring lost possessions, says Weintraub. “If someone has lost their health, we have to do what we can to restore it.”

As partners in creation with God, it’s our job to bring healing and strength and hope, says Goldstein, adding that Judaism “believes in the effectiveness of working with doctors, nurses, social workers and all those in healthcare-related industries who are doing God’s work with their own hands.”

Healing of Spirit, Healing of Body

In addition to appropriate medical treatment, prayer is an important means of healing. Each week, Jews recite a prayer for healing that begins Misheberach, “The One Who Blessed,” on Shabbat during the Torah service. The prayer may be said at other times as well: in the hospital, at home or anywhere someone is sick. In the Misheberach, we ask for “healing of the spirit, healing of the body” for those who are ill.

“We pray that the person recovers, but also that they find comfort and aren’t in pain,” says Tracey Lipsig Kite, LCSW, director of the Jewish Healing Network of Chicago. “We pray they have the strength to cope.”

In a communal setting, the rabbi or prayer leader pauses so congregants can say individual names. Ordinarily, a person’s Hebrew name identifies them as ben (son) or bat (daughter) of the father (i.e.,”Hannah bat Avraham”). But the Misheberach uses the mother’s name (i.e., “Hannah bat Devorah.”) Weintraub notes this is because the prayer addressesthe Shechinah, the “feminine” aspect of God, as opposed to God as Law-Giver or “King”. The Shechinah represents God’s caring, nurturing and sustaining aspect.

The mother’s name is also connected to the concept of rachamim, mercy, one of the attributes of the Divine. The Hebrew root rechem means womb.

“It’s a powerful image of God as being motherly and merciful and there for us in a time of need,” says Sokoll.

Although fathers in modern times have assumed nurturing roles, says Weintraub, “most people, when they are reduced by suffering or illness, think of being embraced by their mothers.”

There is no restriction in Judaism on praying for a non-Jew’s well being and health, says Weiss, adding that the Mishaberach may be said for non-Jewish friends and relatives. To cover all bases, the traditional text of the prayer contains a reference to “all those who are ill,” in case the community is unaware of someone’s suffering.

In addition to the Misheberach, there are prayers for general healing. In the Shemoneh Esrei, the 18 blessings observant Jews recite three times a day, it says, “Heal us, oh God, and we shall be healed…grant perfect healing for our afflictions.”

Traditional Jews also recite Psalms when praying for healing, specifically Psalms 6, 30, 41, 88 and 103. And since ancient times, Jews have created original prayers for healing. The most well-known is the spontaneous cry of Moses for his sister, Miriam: “El na, refa na la” – “Please God, heal her.”

In the Jewish tradition, prayers are not seen as petitions for a miracle cure but as expressions of hope for whatever form healing may take.

“We really discourage looking at prayer as a vending machine, where you put in your dollar and get your candy bar,” says Weintraub. “It’s our job in the covenantal relationship with God to ask for what we need. In turn, it’s God’s job to take care of those who are suffering and be with them.”

The Mitzvah to Heal

Another important element of healing in Jewish tradition is the practice of visiting the sick called in Hebrew bikur cholim. This custom is a religious obligation, a mitzvah. It’s also a social support mechanism, says Weiss, adding that the community is supposed to comfort and care for the sick.

The mitzvah goes back to Genesis, when three angels visited Abraham, who was resting outside his tent after being circumcised at age 99 as part of the covenant with God. The rabbis regard the visit as the first known case of bikur cholim.

The angels are messengers of God and appear on God’s behalf, explains Rabbi Daniel Isaacson, director of spiritual care services at Jewish Family and Children’s Services of San Francisco, The Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.

“When we do bikur cholim, we are acting as God’s agents in the world,” he says.

The Talmud (rabbinic commentary on the Torah and Jewish law) teaches that when we visit the sick, we take away a small piece of their illness, notes Goldstein.

Most synagogues have formal bikur cholim committees that organize hospital visits and other forms of support, such as driving patients to medical appointments or delivering meals to the homebound.

In the 1990s, a formal Jewish healing movement began around the AIDS crisis and has since grown to encompass a broad spectrum of health concerns, from infertility and addiction recovery to end-of-life issues. Today, most major cities have Jewish healing centers that provide resources for both the sick and their caregivers, notes Lipsig Kite.

Jewish healing centers offer a variety of services, including healing circles, support groups, bikur cholim training and assistance with researching treatment options or arranging for hospice care.

The belief that healing is a communal enterprise has roots in the covenantal relationship with God, notes Weintraub.

“As we are granted more understanding of how to prevent and cure illness, it’s our responsibility to join God in the work of healing.”


About Marinell James

Marinell James is a regular contributor to She blogs at